Life Behind Bars

By Jasmine Freeman

Whether or not we think we may know what goes on in prisons, one cannot come close to truly understanding what it is like behind bars, unless you actually experience it for yourself. And although it is very unlikely that I myself will ever experience it first hand, I do know someone who has.

Imagine a 21-year-old male who was just arrested for petty theft. After appearing before a judge without a lawyer, he is found guilty and sentenced to 14 months in prison. This 21 year old is my older brother. We’ll call him Man-Man. And the following is probably the closest I’ll ever get to prison.

The typical morning for a prisoner:

  • At 3:45 am you wake up to get a head count of all the prisoners and eat breakfast. Routinely, you are served pancakes on Monday, grits on Tuesday, oatmeal Wednesday, waffles Thursday, cinnamon rolls on Friday, and then cereal.
  • After multiple head counts to make sure no one has escaped or wandered off, the playroom opens where the prisoners are free to play cards, watch TV, or read a book.
  • At 11:00 am lunch is served. This consists of random meals or if the slob machine is working, then everything is grinded together into one patty and can be served for weeks.

On the inside, the jails are unsanitary and overcrowded.

Let’s use our imagination one more time: a unit with 60 people with no stalls and only 7 toilets to share. Imagine bugs crawling up and down the walls and every now and then, waste oozing through the drains because the plumbing is once again clogged because a prisoner tried to hide a shank in a pipe. Think about the dire need to have commissary money due to the well water prisons use that dries your skin out. So you now have two choices: money for good soap, or money for the nurse to buy cream for your horrible skin.

Key to Survival #1: Now, according to Man-Man, the number one key to survival in prison is knowing how to fight. Sounds just like the TV shows right? Not only knowing how to fight, but also being willing to fight.

He recalls his first time going to jail: a guy, Buckhead, who had already been locked up for nine years, came from maximum security. He was now about to be Man-Man’s roommate. He threatened him with the words of “I’ve had 7 snitches, don’t be the eighth.”

And that night, Man Man found himself being snatched from his bunk and constantly punched until his face was swollen shut. Because he was a victim, it’s unfortunate that he would’ve still been punished for the actions of his cellmate. So, avoiding the hole, he went without breakfast, hiding from the guards. When his cellmate arrived back at the room after breakfast, he beat him with a sock full of bars of soap. He ended up going to the hole anyway.

Due to numerous fights, he turned a 14-month sentence into two years. And for those of you unaware of what “the hole” is, it’s when a prisoner is confined to a room 24 hours a days with nothing but a toilet and bed. They are able to come out once a week and get to choose one of two options: sunlight or phone time. They are served breakfast at 2:00 in the morning, lunch at 7:00 in the morning, and dinner at 2:00 in the afternoon. After that, they’re hungry for the rest of the day.

Key to survival #2 Learn to be yourself. In jail, you have those who go in feeling like they have a point to prove and others who go in with an entirely made up life. Be yourself and things will be a little bit easier.

Key to survival #3 Find people to spend your time with. Know how to network and survive with others.

Key to survival #4 Don’t fuck with nobody. (He felt that was self-explanatory)

And finally, stand up for yourself. Know that although you may be in jail, you are still a human being and shouldn’t be disrespected. (But he is also known to talk back a lot and get into trouble for that, so I’m not sure how far this’ll go. Use at your own risk).

About The Author

Jasmine Freeman
Jasmine Freeman is a Chicago Wisdom Project alum. She is currently a junior at Saint Xavier University studying social work. She is employed as a Program Assistant at The Chicago Wisdom Project.


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